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Board Diversity – Continually Seeking the Best and Brightest

November 6, 2017

What is it about boards that make them so challenging? Is it the frustrating conflict and controversy or the lack of big picture thinking? When there is a lack of experience and expertise on a non-profit board, the range of ideas and information is limited. Large nonprofits, like hospitals and academic institutions, know this and create a corporate governance structure that brings the best practices to the table. 

Why do the majority of non-profit organizations rely on a limited range of expertise and experience for their boards? If everyone has the same professional training and perspective, where is the diversity of ideas? Such crucial intellectual diversity develops from varied expertise in a range of fields not limited to HR, finance, marketing, communications, technology, small business, and government; it is also important to consider corporate executives, as well as other nonprofit leaders.

Work within the space of diversity and inclusion has demonstrated the detrimental effects of homogenous board membership. BoardSource recently released Leading with Intent, a study completed every two years that reviews the composition, culture, and performance of nonprofit boards around the country. This year’s study demonstrates how far we still have to go to achieve an equitable representation of race on such boards: 16% of board members are people of color and 27% percent of boards are 100% white. Anne Wallestad, President & CEO of BoardSource discusses in the HuffingtonPost how “…in the social sector, a board that lacks racial and ethnic diversity risks a dangerous deficit in understanding - on issues of critical importance to the organization’s work and the people it serves.”

As this study raises compelling questions regarding the attention paid to board diversity, let’s explore whether the goal of the board is to think and act strategically, problem-solve creatively, and ensure the robust sustainability of the organization, or just to maintain the status quo and hope for the best. Another diversity issue in the social sector is the preponderance of board leaders with legal training. Legal expertise is valuable for every board, however, legal thinking tends to be tactical, linear, and risk-averse. Over-representation of such a predisposition can limit a board’s scope and lead an organization to stagnation - no board needs more than one lawyer, to address issues from a legal perspective.

Do you want your board to think strategically, with the ability and experience to assess risks, understand complexity, and initiate change? If so, it’s important to consider your current methods for attracting and recruiting new and diverse members to your board. Do you rely on the friends and colleagues of your current leadership, or do you try to develop new and novel pipelines? Do you seek big donors or big thinkers – as this may impact your ability to problem-solve creatively and be innovative.

Every nonprofit organization needs an active governance committee that is continually seeking and recruiting diverse new talent and ensuring best practices. To develop a board with the diversity needed to thrive in the long run, invite some of the best and brightest from new sectors, backgrounds, and demographics to add their expertise to committees or special projects. What is your leadership pipeline? Do you have the right people in the right seats?

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu